Last year, I was standing at the front of this room, trying painfully to elicit something more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from the group of administration staff sitting in quiet rows. I was brand new to teaching, brand new to China, and had no idea about the traditional Chinese teaching style. I’d prepared discussion questions, inspiring images, role-plays, dialogue prompts, pages and pages of material to keep the 2hr conversation lesson flowing. But there they sat, all older than me, notebooks opened to a clean page and pens in had, waiting. The most common teaching format is like a lecture – the teacher will stand or sit at the front and read from a book or Powerpoint, whilst students write down notes. Even with language learning, vocabulary and grammar rules and spelling are dictated from the front of the room. Students hang off your every word, scribbling every syllable frantically in their books, then go home and spend hours after school digesting the information. In the West, this is the stuff of dreams. But it does have its drawbacks. There is no time to practice speaking in class. This means that many Chinese students can read, write and understand English well, but freeze when it comes to forming a sentence out loud. If you’ve ever tried to make painful conversation with somebody for 2 hours, multiply that by 6 and you’ve got my little class of admin staff back in the first semester. I’ve learned a lot since then – namely, no matter how senior in age or rank a person is to me, if they’re put in front of someone who is to teach them, they will sit silently and listen.
So now, as I started mapping out my last few months in Harbin, I thought about how I should be spending my time. What, when I get home, will I regret not having done? It’s a long way back here if I have regrets. I knew straight away that not making more of an effort with Chinese will be one. It’s an easy cop-out; I’ve been so busy with classes, extra classes, private tuition, lesson planning, having a life, adding sleeves and adjusting hems on H&M sale items etc, that I’ve not had time to organise regular Chinese lessons. Plus, native English speakers are in short supply, and students want to practice their English. My survival Chinese is pretty good, in that I’ve survived thus far, but only when it comes to speaking. I haven’t been able to break into the world of Chinese characters. Although my new ‘content’ classes – teaching British Drama, and British Society and Culture – keep me very busy with conducting enough research to write a thesis for each class every week, I decided that I have to make time to learn Chinese properly, and I was willing to pay for a private tutor for a few hours each week. But after chatting with one of the foreign students here, I chanced my luck by asking if I can join the foreign students class. Success! Although they’re having classes all day every day, I can only fit in 3 a week, but already I’m reading and writing a handful of characters and starting to feel more Mulan-like than ever before (assuming she was literate and British).
So for three classes a week, I’m back in my first classroom, this time at one of the desks, notepad turned to a clean page and pen in hand. The classes move very quickly, magnified by the fact that I miss two thirds of them, but three weeks in I’m going strong. The precious space between lesson prep and bedtime is spent filling pages and pages of handwriting books with strokes and characters. I’ll usually write the character about 40 times before moving onto the next one. Writing is an art form; each character is made from a series of strokes which should be made in the correct sequence. If you jump ahead and draw the bottom squiggle before the little dash in the top left, the whole composition is ruined. Apparently. Mine look rather slapdash no matter how much concentration I put in, but it’ll get there.
The beauty of learning Chinese in China is that you can see your development immediately. I was on a bus last week, for example, and as we were stopped at some traffic lights a big wagon pulled up besides us. On the side were about 6 characters, and two of them I’d learned; 车 and 火 – chē (vehicle), huǒ (fire). You’d think this would indicate a fire brigade truck, but this grubby commercial wagon with its billowing PVC sides and leaking exhaust looked more like a fire hazard, so reading those characters didn’t give me a great insight into what it was for. Nonetheless I felt a pitiful sense of excitement at now being a part of this exclusive group who could understand the meaning of those strange shapes.
I’m not sure what the long-term aim is. I don’t know enough to be an asset to any major corporations looking for someone to liaise with their Chinese clientele, and I can’t correctly identify the purpose of random vehicles based on their sign-age. I’m leaving in a couple of months to a country where Chinese doesn’t exactly crop up in daily life, so am I wasting my time? I don’t think so. The world is made up primarily of sights we’ll never see, foods we’ll never taste, people we’ll never speak to, details we’ll never realise we don’t know. The simple pleasure of learning something you didn’t know before is timeless (the simple pleasure-ness of which, in my case, is heightened because they a) are lessons I don’t need to plan, and b) culminate in very difficult exams I don’t need to sit. Still, you get my point). I’ve spent the last two years in a world where I can’t read the signs, read the menus, read what’s in the jar, read which part of the form I’m supposed to sign, so inroads into this seemingly impenetrable world, however small, are worth the time invested and the money spent (one ream of squared paper costs 10p – the same price as a bus anywhere in the city).